Chapter 8 of The Night Is A Harsh Mistress is up, in which Rachel might, possibly, find a love interest…
Thursday 13 – 150th Edition: 06/19/2008
13 Things I Am Grateful For
Note: these are listed in no particular order.
1. My health
2. My spouse
3. My home
4. My puppy dog
5. My kitten, Belii and Marina
6. My writing
7. Summer weather
8. Air conditioners
9. My friends
10. My voice
11. My doctor
12. My family
13. My computer
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My Thursday Thirteen…
The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in other’s comments. It’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!Leave your link in a comment, and I’ll link back to you here:
Phylar looked back at the slumbering form in the bed. Jonesh curled around the pillows, her long black curls askew across the sheets. Phylar slipped the keys from the table and shrugged into his robe. He took one final look around at the chamber he’d spent the last four years living in, and shut the door.
He ran down the hallway. This was the only danger: that some guard, zealous and careful, would be prowling the halls of the King’s section of the castle, intent on finding a stray servant. Phylar couldn’t be found. He streaked past the stairs that led down to the receiving rooms and on toward the kitchens. Luck was with him; no one was about.
The second stairs were dark. He knew them by touch, padding down each one carefully lest he slip on the slick stone. He opened the door to the covered walkway, the wooden pillars dark and the carvings shadowed. He scanned the nearby rooftops, but no sentries yet walked. It was another half-hour til crow’s call, and he’d timed his escape perfectly.
He sped down the walkway, still shoeless, his sandals held by the laces in one hand. He reached the bottom and paused. The courtyard radiated light from the moon, silver and bright. The inlaid pattern in the stone seemed shadowed, ominous. He bent and slipped the sandals over his feet, lacing them with sure movements. The postern gate was ahead of him, shadowed by the tall hedge. He heard the snort of a horse, outside.
Phylar streaked across the courtyard, his heart pounding. He pulled the keys out of his pocket, found the right one, and unlocked the gate.
“Phylar. You’re late,” the gruff voice greeted him.
“Only by a little, Captain Lorgin. Better that than discovered.”
“Is all in readiness?”
“Yes,” Phylar confirmed. “I left her sleeping in the chamber; the King is unattended.”
Lorgin regarded him with a black eye, his eyebrow ridge shadowing his gaze and making it sinister, threatening. “You betray your lover so easily, then?”
Lorgin flushed. “She’s not my lover. I was captured, I’m a slave like you.”
Lorgin grunted, but didn’t correct him. He didn’t have to, Phylar heard it anyway. He knew what the conscript soldiers thought of him, a too-pretty boy with the eye of the King’s daughter. “Just stay out of the way, Boy,” Lorgin grunted.
Phylar moved to the side, intimidated despite his brave talk. The soldiers were all large men, clad in rough boiled leather and bearing knives and short swords. Only Lorgin had a mount, but one of the lower-ranking soldiers came to take it away. Lorgin nodded to the men behind him and disappeared through the gate. Phylar counted thirty men with him and felt his stomach clench with fear. Despite what he said… He looked up at the windows of the castle, high above where he stood.
He was a slave. Nothing more. He turned away, to run to the village and hide, but something made him stop. A flash of light flared behind him and he turned. A bunting, bright and woven of beautiful lambswool, waved forlornly as it was consumed by fire.
“Wait!” he cried, running forward a step. “You didn’t say you’d burn them…” He stumbled to a stop. A palace guard lay ten feet from him, his throat a bloody mess. Phylar stumbled away, vomiting into the hedge, its rough branches pricking his skin.
He turned in spite of himself to look at where Lorgin disappeared. The screams started and he could hear Jonesh among them, demanding to see the leader, demanding… demanding to know what they’d done with Phylar.
Phylar caught his breath on a sob. She didn’t care about him, she couldn’t. She was a spoiled daughter of kings, used to taking boys from their families as Phylar had been taken. He’d been forced to do her bidding, to father three children on her body. He hated her. He turned to run and couldn’t make himself get even as far as the gate.
Lorgin appeared, dragging someone by the hair. With a start, Phylar recognized Jonesh. He threw her, nose bloodied, to land on the stones in a heap. Her head came up and Phylar met her gaze, felt the shock of recognition as she saw him, realized what he was doing, where he stood. The keys felt cold in his hands, a mute accusation.
“Phylar!” she cried.
Lorgin’s hand cracked sharply across her mouth and she fell flat on the stones at his feet, weeping. “Silence! You will speak when told to, Slave, and at no other time!”
Jonesh looked up at Lorgin, her nose streaming blood. She said nothing, but stared at him with hatred and tears in her eyes. Lorgin ignored her and turned to Phylar. He tossed something and Phylar caught it out of reflex.
“Your payment, Boy. Go and spend it wisely.”
Phylar stared at Jonesh, then looked at Lorgin. “What of her?”
Lorgin laughed. “You care nothing for this whore, you said so yourself. You were nothing more than a slave in her bed, a breeding stallion for the King. What does it matter what we do with her?”
Phylar gaped at him, at a loss for what to say.
“Go, Boy.” Lorgin tossed another bag and it landed at Phylar’s feet. “Take an extra payment and find a real whore to sate yourself.”
Several of Lorgin’s men laughed cruelly. One, standing near Phylar, grabbed Phylar’s arm roughly and dragged him toward the postern gate. A second scooped up the bag that Lorgin had tossed and threw it out of the gate. It slammed shut behind them, the locks sliding home with a sound of finality.
Phylar clutched his bags to his chest and stumbled toward the village, trying to shut out the sound of the screams behind him. A great gout of flame sprang up, lighting the trees around him with an eerie glow. Phylar began to run.
“Just do it!”
Your skin glows when you’re irritated. It’s cute. I struggle not to smile, but you sigh with exasperation and put your hand down, the eyeliner cocked like a pen.
“Lauren, will you quit it?”
“Haley, how can I? You’re cute when you’re mad!” I know you hate it when I say that, but I can’t resist tweaking you.
You frown at me, but I can see your eyes are twinkling. The little radiations of yellow through the hazel and green are bright today. You have small crow’s feet starting in the corners of your eyes but I think they make you look happy, not old.
“Lauren, if I screw this up…”
“Can’t have that, can we?” I close my eyes obediently.
I can’t look at you anymore, but I can see you in my mind’s eye. Your brown hair is all up in hot rollers. Your skin, the color of clover honey, is soft and radiant, ready for your own makeup. You’ll do it with quick, efficient strokes after you finish mine. Your bra and panties match, a lovely sage green with a whisper of lace. I found them after hours of searching the mall and you wear them today especially for me. You’ve put on your stockings and I grow aroused just thinking about it.
“There,” you say, unaware of my thoughts. I open my eyes to see you studying your handiwork. “Tilt your head.”
You rearrange this or that on my eyelids with feather-light brushes of the eyeliner and shadow sponge. Then you start on my eyebrows. Overcome, I lean forward to catch your bottom lip in my teeth. You squeak, startled. It’s a noise I love to hear from you, though I’m never sure when you’ll make it. I could spend the rest of my life figuring out. You taste like cherry pie and lemon crisp, and your tongue is tantalizing. You finally pull back, laughing.
“We have to get ready, Lauren.”
“Haley, I’d rather stay here and make love.”
You smile. “We have to get ready. The Pastor is going to be here in less than a half hour.”
“Yes, dear. That soon.”
You kiss my nose and attack my other eyebrow. Then it’s on to the cheeks and then my lips. Then comes the gloss. It’s like lubricant, I think, growing more aroused. You smile slightly, now aware of how much I want you. Instead of commenting, you stand up and pause, giving me time to focus on the mounds of your backside right in front of me, and then you stalk away on your high heels. I hadn’t seen you put them on, but you look hot in your underwear and stockings.
“Get dressed, Lauren, please. I don’t want to be late.”
I sigh, but do as you ask. My dress hangs, fluffed and ready. It’s an Easter egg yellow that you picked because you like how it looks with my black hair. My skin, a ‘medium-toned mocha’ you say, looks good next to the paleness of the yellow. I unzip the back and hear you walk up behind me.
“Let me help you,” you whisper.
Your hands on my hips hold me steady. You lean into my back and reach for the dress, your skin warm and silky. You press yourself against me and bend forward, forcing me to lean over. Your hand strokes up my thigh and I start to breathe faster. You slide right past my innermost spots that are aching for you and keep going, around my side and down the front of the leg.
“Lift your leg.”
I do so, and you slip the skirt around my foot. Then your hands slip down my other leg and stop at my knee. I moan but you are relentless, slipping the dress onto my other leg.
“Stand up, honey.” You slip the dress up over the rest of my body, making sure to cup my breasts. You zip the dress closed and then turn me around with your hands on my hips again. You stand there, dressed in your panties, bra, stockings and heels, with nothing else on. I can’t bear it.
“Lauren, we have to go.”
I step forward, bringing our bodies together, and possess your mouth. You groan, inflaming me. Your taste is like ambrosia and I close my eyes, lost in it.
You finally pull away and look at my lips. Then you push me backwards onto the chair. You straddle me, bringing our eyes to the same level. “Now I have to fix your lipstick.”
You ignore any other movements I make until I’m nearly crying with need. Then you kiss my nose. “After we’re married, darling.”
That gets a laugh out of me. You slip off me and dress, your movements sure and authoritative. God, I love the way you move. You apply your own makeup in a fraction of the time you took to do mine and it looks as lovely.
“You guys ready?” Lou calls from the door, not quite opening it.
“Yes,” Haley calls. “Is the pastor here?”
“Just walked in. You guys are on in five. Better hurry, it’s a madhouse.”
We meet each other’s gaze, nervous for the first time all morning.
“You ready?” I ask.
You nod, your hair bouncing. The curls are fat and all over your head like a halo.
We head outside.
“There they are!” The cry comes from a knot of reporters standing to one side.
“Lauren!” one calls. “How does it feel to be the first lesbian married in the City of Chicago?”
I look at you, standing next to me in a confection of a dress, and feel myself grin. You echo me. I look back at the reporter. “Fantastic!”
We head into the chapel together, at the head of a crowd of well-wishers.
What Is It?
Brother Guillermo locked the store room door, the iron key cold in his hands. A branch snapped behind him and he turned. His heart pounded against his chest but he saw nothing moving. Twilight oozed through the trees like smoke.
But nothing moved.
He shook his head and stuffed the key in his belt pouch. The rough wool itched his fingers. He set off for the dormitory, his sandals slipping on the rough ground. Spain had not faired well under Franco, that was no secret. But Mother Nature herself seemed to rebel, punishing them with a harsh winter and late spring. The trails all over the monastery were littered with fallen branches and leaves.
Guillermo heard another crunch behind him. “Who’s there?” He swept the gathering darkness, but saw nothing. No one answered him. “Answer me!” he commanded in his best imitation of Father Miguel. Still nothing.
It must have been some animal, disturbed at his passing. Guillermo wished that Raul, at least, had stayed behind. But the young monk nearly danced with excitement at the prospect of seeing the Archbishop in the town square, so Guillermo agreed to stay behind alone to keep an eye on things. Franco’s soldiers hadn’t been seen in three weeks and the rebels in the area wouldn’t bother the monastery.
A branch snapped, this time so close that it seemed loud to him. He whirled, but saw only shadow. Abandoning his dignity, he turned and ran for the dormitory. His breath whistled painfully in his chest and a stitch stabbed his side but still he ran. He stumbled up to the back door and fumbled with the key. He nearly sobbed with desperation as it stuck in the lock. He pushed frantically at it and it finally gave. He fell inside and kicked the door shut.
Guillermo heard a footstep. A heavy tread moved up to the door and tried the handle. Shaking like a leaf, Guillermo got to his feet and slipped his sandals off. He ran quietly for the stairs and went up them two at a time, the stitch in his side forgotten. He threw open the door to the kitchen and slammed it behind him. He tried to still his breathing as he listened, but his heartbeat drowned everything out.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,” Guillermo prayed. He recited the entire Lord’s Prayer and started on a Hail Mary when he heard it. A footstep on the stair on the other side of the door.
He fell backwards, tripping over his robes, and scrambled out of the kitchen. He ran through the refectory, slamming the door behind him and throwing the bolt. He raced for the stairs and took them two at a time, his knees complaining. At the top, he flashed down the hall, the bedrooms on either side of him appearing like dreams in his peripheral vision. He wrenched open the door to the attic stairs and slammed it shut behind him, fumbling in his pouch for the secondary ring of keys.
By the time he got the correct key out and fitted into the lock, his breathing had calmed enough to listen. He pressed his ear to the door, trembling so hard the rosary tucked into his belt rattled faintly. He had very nearly decided the coast was clear when a footstep sounded in the hall on the other side of the door. He put both feet against the door and set his back against the wall opposite, his arm leaning on the stairs beside him. He stuffed his fist in his mouth to keep from screaming.
The door handle rattled slightly.
“Go away!” Brother Guillermo shouted, his voice much higher than its usual baritone.
The handle moved down, then up. Nothing happened, since Guillermo had locked it, but it happened twice more.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Guillermo recited under his breath, tears coursing down his cheeks. His body shivered painfully as he said the entire Psalm.
The footsteps paced back and forth outside the door, every so often stopping in front of it. Sometimes the handle would jiggle, sometimes it wouldn’t. Once came a knock, the sound so sudden and sharp that Guillermo cried out.
“Go away!” he yelled, spots in front of his eyes. “Go away…”
The footsteps continued. Back three. Forward three. Stop. Rattle the handle. Pause. Back three. Back another one. Forward three. Pause. Back three. Stop. Forward again. Rattle.
The shout brought him out of a cramped sleep, wedged at the bottom of the attic stairs and the door. His neck burned from the constriction and his right hand fell numb.
“Guillermo!” Raul’s voice sounded panicked.
“Raul?” Guillermo gasped. “Raul!” Guillermo fell as he tried to stand, his left leg asleep. It erupted in pins and needles as he struggled to rise. “Raul! I’m in the attic!”
Raul’s light steps raced up to the door and tried the handle. “It’s locked, Guillermo! Are you okay? Father Miguel! I found him!” Raul’s voice carried, loud even through the door.
Guillermo’s hands couldn’t hold onto the keys they were so slick with sweat. They made an almighty crash when he dropped them.
“Guillermo!” Raul shouted, pounding on the door. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Raul, calm down. I dropped the keys, is all.” Guillermo found the right key and fitted it in the lock.
Raul nearly fell through the door when he opened it. He flung his arms around Guillermo’s neck and squeezed so tight Guillermo had trouble breathing.
“Raul, calm down!”
“We thought you were dead!”
“What?” Guillermo echoed in shock.
Father Miguel strode up, face grave. “Brother Guillermo. We had feared for your safety.”
Father Miguel pointed. There, clearly outlined on the wood slats of the floor, lay large footprints. They weren’t human.
“What was it?” Raul asked, eyes huge.
“I don’t know,” Guillermo whispered. “I never saw it!”
I sat down at an unoccupied stool and ordered an ale and some stew. It came hot and thick with turnips and spices and a slab of bread thick enough to build with. I sighed deeply. It had been a long day.
“Mind if I join you?” an old man’s voice said near my elbow.
“Sure,” I mumbled around a too-large bite of bread. I know it’s rude to talk with your mouth full, but this bread!
I looked over and a wizened little man stood next to me. As our eyes met, I saw a flash of blue, then he blinked and sat. He was short!
“You’re not from round here, are you, Boy?” he asked me after he ordered the same thing I had.
“Not really,” I hedged, not wanting to tell him the whole truth.
“Me neither,” he grunted. “Come here for the bread.”
That startled a laugh out of me. “I could see that.”
He smiled, a brief flash of white in his beard. “Too bad old Sam’s not here,” he commented.
I swallowed my bite of stew. “Old Sam?”
The old man regarded me with his blue-eyed gaze. “Aye. Give ‘im an ale and he’d tell you stories, he would. Seems he went…” he dropped his voice, “travelin’.”
I smiled at the hint and obliged, getting myself an ale too.
“There was this dragon, see,” the old man started. He saw my expression. “Now, don’t be like that. You’re form the White City, you’ve seen things, I’ll wager.”
I blinked. “How –”
“Your coat of arms. Recognized the insignia. Wore it meself, once.” He took another bite of bread. “Now about that dragon…”
The tale he told me was fanciful enough for my daughter Palondril. “That’s quite a story,” I allowed.
“Sam’s got it all written down, you see.”
My heart started to pound. “You’re not serious!”
He twinkled at me and I started to get the impression our encounter wasn’t as casual as he’d let on. “Aye.”
“Could I… could I talk to this Sam?”
His eyes grew sad. “No, more’s the pity. He passed on in his sleep last Spring, he did.”
We drank a toast to Sam.
“I can take you to meet his son, if you’d like,” he offered. “He’s got the book. Might let you see it.” He took another sip of his ale, which though the same size as mine, made his hands seem small in comparison.
“Who are you?” I asked, afire with curiosity. “How did you know I’d be interested in this?”
He shrugged. “You’ve got your father’s eyes.”
I blinked. “What?”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Peregrin Took. Call me Pippin.”
It all clicked into place and I laughed. “Figures.” I took his hand. “I am Arandorn, son of Aragorn. I bid you greetings from my parents and from Faramir.”
By the time we left the pub early in the wee ours of the morning, he managed to drink nearly every patron under the table. It was an incredible introduction.
The twilight softened the house into shadows, the lights within not illuminating so much as providing beacons. Molly walked toward the front door, hitching her backpack more comfortably. Her muscles ached from track practice.
She opened the front door, the key turning with a squeak. She stepped in but slowed. It seemed too quiet, like just after an electrical storm.
The front door closed with a faint click and she shot the deadbolt home. She set her pack down in the foyer and walked into the kitchen. It was empty.
“Mom?” she called.
Molly walked through the kitchen, the oven and stove both cold. The table hadn’t been set for dinner. She entered the hall and froze.
On the baseboard, two black streaks marred the pristine white. It looked like rubber from the tread of boots.
“Mom?” she shouted, starting to get nervous again. Still no answer.
She entered her mother’s room. The bed was pushed to the side, diagonally to the room. The lamp from one of the two bedside tables lay on the floor, its shade askew and the bulb broken. Molly heard the toilet flush.
“Molly, you’re home,” her mother said in a normal tone of voice. The tear-tracks on her face stood out like tire marks.
“Mom, what happened?”
Her mother looked at the bed and tears oozed out of her eyes. “John is drinking again.”
Molly felt rage flood her like some kind of poison, except it didn’t feel lethal, it felt powerful. Her hands balled into fists. “Where is he?” she demanded.
Her mother looked startled by her tone of voice. “Molly!” she admonished.
“Where is he?” Molly repeated.
“I don’t know,” her mother answered, deflating. “I think he might have left.” She sounded dejected.
“He should leave!” Molly shouted.
“That’s not your business!” her mother flared.
Molly didn’t answer, just turned on her heel to find her stepfather. She stalked through her house like a hunter, every nerve tingling. He wasn’t in any of the rooms. She pulled the back door open so violently it wrenched her shoulder, but the pain felt good. It helped clear her head.
He stood in a corner of the garage by the door, trying to open it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Molly screamed, her rage boiling out of her.
John turned. His nose was a bloody mess. “Leaving!” he cried, tears in his voice.
Molly stepped down the short stair into the garage. “What happened to your nose?”
“She hit me,” John answered, yanking at the garage door lock. It gave with a squeal of metal and the door started to raise grudgingly.
“Who hit you?” Molly asked, for a moment totally confused. Then her mind cleared and she knew the answer, even as he said it.
My mother hit him, Molly thought to herself. Her stomach boiled, the acid nearly a living animal inside her, coiled and ready to strike. She trembled, hard shudders that were almost painful.
“Why?” she wanted to know.
“How should I know?” John shouted, digging in his pocket for keys.
“She said you’re drinking again,” Molly accused.
“Well, I’m not. I went to the bar with Mike and Steve, is all. She started screaming at me and we got in a fight.”
Molly whirled, her mind too full of it. She stumbled down the stairs beside the house, down to the patio. She ignored her stepfather’s call, ignored the lights of the house, and moved into the night on autopilot. The anger felt like electricity, that if somebody were to take her picture, they’d see it coruscating around her hair like a plasma ball.
She set off into the woods behind their house, not caring where she went. She just needed to get away.
The house, behind her, glowed its light out into the night, oblivious.
“Xaxon, you space hound! How have you been?” The hail came from behind Xaxon Broxes and he turned.
“Javnon Pequent?” Xaxon blurted. “Is that really you?”
Javnon strode up, his lemon-yellow ship-knits clashing horribly with his shock of long orange hair. “Of course it’s me, you pirate! You still piloting that elderly old bird of yours?”
“The ZX-5 is the best in its class,” Xaxon retorted stiffly.
“Of course it is!” Javnon agreed airily. “Come. Buy me a drink?”
By the time Xaxon realized the direction of the suggested transaction, Javnon had already clamped onto his arm and was leading him steadily toward the central grav bar. It floated, gently bobbing, the anti-grav field generators nearly invisible under the heavy synth-wood construction. Brilliant cyan electrified gas tubs leant the drinkers a cadaverous air, but Javnon elbowed his way in to plunk his ample bottom on a stool and dragged Xaxon down onto the adjacent one.
“Two Glaks!” Javnon boomed.
The bartender, a pert Saturnian with electric fuchsia hair and perky breasts – all four of them, nodded, bored. She set the foaming brown sludge in front of Javnon and waited expectantly. Xaxon sighed and swiped his credit chit. She flounced away while Javnon turned to him.
“So. How did you make out in the Martian debacle?” Javnon all but whispered, looking around furtively.
Xaxon shrugged. “I wasn’t stupid enough to get my nose in on that one,” he answered and took a sip. The Glak was stale, but washed a parsec’s worth of space dust out of his mouth.
“Stupid. Yes, hmm, well,” Javnon mumbled. He took a long swig of his Glak and burped phenomenally.
“Nice one,” Xaxon murmured. “You, um, didn’t actually give them money, did you?”
Javnon sighed. “Yes, actually.” He waited a moment, then added plaintively, “It seemed like such a good deal, too!”
Xaxon nodded sympathetically. “But don’t you know the Martians love to defraud us?” he admonished gently. “I mean, what did Binxman say?”
Javnon flushed. “She left me,” he said into his Glak. “Six cycles ago, actually. Got fed up and left me for a Wormhole wildcatter, lucky bloke.”
Xaxon felt a flash of envy. He took a sip of his drink to cover it and looked at Javnon. “You didn’t lose a lot, I hope.”
“Most of it,” Javnon admitted. He glanced at Xaxon so quickly that Xaxon only got a flash of green eye and then was looking at Javnon’s ear again. “The ship, too.”
Suddenly everything made sense. Xaxon’s heart sank. Sure enough, Javnon looked at him pleadingly.
“You don’t have space in your crew, do you? I mean, even if it is just a ZX-5…” he trailed off.
Xaxon thought it was rich to insult his bird at the same time as he asked for a job. But, he’d known Javnon for a long time. “I’ll think about it,” he hedged. “I just might have need of a mechanic.”
“Not a Starnav?” Javnon said hopefully.
Xaxon laughed at that. “You don’t think small, do you?”
Javnon looked guilty, but met his eyes easily enough. “No,” he agreed cheerfully.
Xaxon made his decision. “All right. Meet me at Bay 14 at oh-nineteen station-side.”
Javnon beamed. “Thank you! You won’t regret this!”
Xaxon wasn’t entirely sure he agreed with that, but shook hands dutifully. He checked his chrono and stood. He downed the rest of his Glak in one shot and patted Javnon’s shoulder. “I’ll see you shipside,” he said and left the bar.
He arrived only five minutes late for his appointment with the prostitute. She let him take his time and didn’t overwhelm him with exotic positions, and he enjoyed himself immensely. He even left her a thirty-percent tip in gratitude.
He reached the ZX-5 five minutes before oh-nineteen and saw Javnon waiting with four heavy carbonite crates. He slowed, frowning.
“What the asteroid is that?” he blurted.
Javnon flushed, looking furtive. “It’s just a little cargo, Xaxon. Nothing too weighty…”
Xaxon stopped. “What is it, Pequent? I’ll not have contraband on my ship.”
“It’s not contraband,” Javnon protested. “It’s … um, specimens.”
“Of what, Pequent?” Xaxon pressed.
“Martians,” Javnon whispered, glancing around fearfully. “We should go…”
Xaxon was thunderstruck. He started to step forward, to yell or thrash Javnon’s ridiculous red-headed body, he hadn’t decided. The station klaxon let out with an almighty squeal and Javnon’s face drained of color.
“All ships not cleared for station undock are detained by order of Stationmaster Sylipsyn,” a voice intoned. “All ships not cleared for station undock are detained by order of Stationmaster Sylipsyn.” The voice droned on, repeating its warning in Martian, Salubrian, and even Saturnian – although hearing Sylipsyn pronounced in Saturnian would have made a cat laugh. Unfortunately, Xaxon was not a cat. Nor in a good humor.
“Get on board,” he snapped. He snatched the controls for the nearest crate and jammed the button down. He thumbed his comlink in his collar. “Minkis, coming aboard now. Four new crates and one mechanic. Clear station now, before lockdown. Is that clear?”
There was a startled pause and then Minkis responded. “Aye, sir.”
Xaxon was relieved Minkis was on duty. He was calm in a crisis. He swept on board, Javnon behind him, and they stowed the crates in cargo bay 2.
“Strap in,” Xaxon snapped at Javnon and moved aft to the bridge. Javnon, after momentary indecision, stumbled along behind him. Xaxon ignored him. If he wanted to fly about during undock, fine.
Maybe he’d break that red-headed noggin and save Xaxon the trouble.
They cleared the station doors just before they started to close. Xaxon strapped into the Captain’s lounge and watched Javnon slip into the Starnav’s console. Minkis thumbed a switch and the wormhole flared to life.
“Here we go,” Xaxon murmured.
“Let’s hope they don’t follow us,” Javnon whispered nervously.
Xaxon turned his lounge to stare at him. “Who?”
Javnon turned innocent green eyes to him. “Their parents, of course!”
Tik-tik shivered and ruffled his fur in a wave from his whiskers to his tail. He sneezed. Rain again. Four suns of the stuff! He started forward again and stepped through a patch of dead leaves into yet another puddle, burying his paw up to the first joint. He hissed involuntarily.
Kao turned his head and clicked his teeth, black tail lashing. “Quiet!”
Tik-tik glared at him and heaved himself out of the indentation. “Knock it off, Kao. You’re not the boss of me.”
Kao whirled on one hind paw and swiped his claws past Tik-tik’s nose, making his whiskers wave in the wind of their passing. “Not yet, maybe,” he purred. The white fluff on the end of his foot was spattered with mud.
“Your feet are dirty,” Tik-tik noted.
“Pheh!” Kao spat and turned back to the path.
Tik-tik licked his chops and started after Kao again. The rain continued relentlessly.
“Tik-tik!” Mai-mai squealed, loping out of the cave to meet them. “You’re back!” She whizzed past Kao without acknowledging him and pressed her nose into Tik-tik’s shoulder. “It’s raining!”
“You only realized that now?”
“Hi, Mai-mai,” Kao greeted.
“Hi, Kao,” Mai-mai said without looking. “Tik-tik. Paw-paw is here.”
Tik-tik’s ears lowered. “When did he arrive?”
“Start of sun. He’s not well.”
Tik-tik, looking right at Kao, saw the flash of hunger in his eyes. Kao said nothing, just turned and went into the cave. Mai-mai watched him go.
“No, Mai-mai. Hush.”
“But…” She trailed off, worried.
“Come,” Tik-tik said. “I’m hungry and dirty. Let’s go in, see the others.”
Mai-mai clearly wanted to argue but followed him docilely enough.
Kao had walked over to the circle where Paw-paw lay and touched noses. Paw-paw barely responded.
Kao turned and saw Tik-tik. His lips were curled up in a smile. He looked to his left, past Tik-tik, to where Bo sat with his two females.
“Kao,” Bo greeted, his voice carrying in the small space.
“Bo.” His tongue curled out insolently and licked his chops. “Paw-paw isn’t doing well.”
Bo blinked and stood up, tail lashing. “Show respect, Kao.”
Kao glanced at the ailing form behind him. “He can’t hear me, Bo. He’s nearly gone.”
Bo stepped forward and growled. “You are out of order!”
“Tik-tik!” Mai-mai whispered urgently.
“Shh.” He stepped between her and the impending fight.
Kao saw him move. “You can’t protect her anymore, Tik-tik!”
Tik-tik blinked as Mai-mai’s tail lashed angrily. “Why do I need to protect her, Kao?”
Kao snorted. “Coward.”
Tik-tik roared. It came out of him almost from his claws and felt good, powerful. The sound filled the cave and Bo laid his ears back. Kao, on the other hand, looked satisfied. “I can’t fight Bo until I challenge you, Tik-tik. You’re his second.”
“Paw-paw is not dead!” Bo shouted.
Kao whirled and one paw shot out, his claws extended. The spray of blood flew all the way to the cave wall and Paw-paw collapsed in the gravel, his throat a bloody ruin.
“He is now,” Kao spat.
Bo stepped forward, his fur on end and his hackles bristling. “You should not have done that!”
“Why?” Kao sneered.
“Because now I can help Tik-tik, Kao! You are out of order!”
A brief flicker of uncertainty went through Kao’s eyes, but Bo didn’t give him a chance to react. He sprang forward with a deep, coughing roar. Tik-tik leaped with him.
The fight was unlike anything Tik-tik had fought to that sun. Kao seemed half mad with a wild insolence. Bo moved next to Tik-tik like they’d rehearsed it, but Kao was faster than both of them. His claws were everywhere and he nearly snapped Tik-tik’s foreleg with his jaws, missing by a whisker-length.
Tik-tik crouched, preparing to leap onto Kao’s back so Bo could take his throat. Some sound or movement made his eye dart to the side. “Mai-mai!”
Mai-mai, ears flat to her head and fangs clearly visible as she growled, stalked forward, front low to the ground. She hissed, a low and angry sound unlike any Tik-tik had heard from her. Kao paused, startled.
Bo jumped forward and his jaws fastened on Kao’s throat. He bound Kao’s forelegs in his own and curled onto his back, his back claws tearing bloody rents in Kao’s side and stomach. Mai-mai darted forward and swiped her front paw, all five claws out, across Kao’s muzzle.
“You will never have me!” she screamed.
Bo growled and tightened his grip. Kao’s struggles became wilder as he fought now for air. Bo strained, and Kao’s breath exhaled on a gurgle. He collapsed, dead.
Bo stood and shook himself. Glancing at Paw-paw’s body, his ears flattened momentarily. He met Tik-tik’s gaze and Tik-tik bent forward in a bow.
After a moment he heard the others do the same. When they all were bowing, Bo stood up to his full height and roared, deafening Tik-tik. Tik-tik straightened.
“Bo. You are leader,” Tik-tik said, his voice loud in the silence that followed Bo’s roar.
Bo looked at him, whiskers forward. “I…”
Tik-tik took a step toward him. “Bo. Paw-paw was old and his time was close. It would have happened anyway.”
Bo licked his chops and sat, his tail curling around his paws. “Tik-tik. I choose you as second.”
Tik-tik’s ears perked forward. “Thank you.”
“Mai-mai. Will you take Tik-tik?” Bo asked then.
Mai-mai blinked and stepped forward. She sat next to Tik-tik, her tail brushing his side. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Tik-tik blurted.
Mai-mai looked at him, her pupils dilated. “What did you expect?”
“I…” Tik-tik didn’t know what to say.
“Go, my friend,” Bo coaxed. “We will clean up the home. You chase your mate. You’ve earned it.”
Mai-mai was purring. She glanced at Bo and then swiped a paw across Tik-tik’s flank. “Catch me, if you can.” She whirled and was gone.
Tik-tik took off after her. The rain didn’t seem so bad, anymore. His tongue lolled out briefly and he sped up.